Sunday, March 12, 2017
It is perhaps the most useful mnemonic phrase: spring forward, fall behind.
At least it was, back in the day when we set our clocks. Now clocks -- on our computers, our cell phones -- pretty much set themselves.
Still, helpful to bear in mind, as twice a year, once in the fall, and once today at 2 a.m., we try to wrap our heads around the complexities of Daylight Savings Time.
Expect a bigger hoopla next year. It was in March, 1918 when the House of Representatives voted 252 to 40 to pass a law "To Save Daylight and Provide Standard Time for the United States."
Well, Standard Time had already been enacted, by the railroads, in 1883. Before then, each locality had its own concept of time and there was no particular need to synch them up. Noon was when the sun was directly overhead on Main Street.
It was only when the option of Daylight Savings Time—begun in Germany, a fact its opponents milked to maximum advantage—that Standard Time, set by the Union Pacific, suddenly became "God's time" set in the Book of Genesis and untouched ever since.
Columbus politicians might fan their soup with their hats, James Thurber once wrote, but they had enough good old-fashioned horse sense to know fiddling with the clocks was "directly contrary to the will of the Lord God Almighty and that the supporters of the project would burn in hell."
There is such comfort today, when half the country seems lost in unreason, rejecting the science of climate change and vocally backing an unfit liar and fraud, to look back a century and realize that the American people have always had trouble with anything the least bit complicated. Daylight Savings Time moves the clocks forward an hour in the spring so that when June 20 arrives, instead of the sun rising in Bangor, Maine at 3:49 a.m., as it would under Standard Time, the clock will read the relatively luxurious 4:49 a.m. instead. So the hour of daylight that most people would be sleeping through is shifted to evening.
That would seem a bonus, but Americans (and Britons, and Canadians) fought it like a rend in the fabric of reality.
"It prevents people from enjoying the air in the morning, when it is fresh and healthful, by compelling them to go in shop or office one hour before it is necessary one New Yorker wrote to Congress. "It upsets the schedule of all large manufacturing plants, as their working hours are arranged so as to take advantage of the summer daylight hours. It is the direct cause of overcrowding of transit lines during rush hours, as it causes everybody to go to work at the same time, where as under normal conditions different factories have different arrangement of working hours, thereby lessening the overcrowding of cars."
Congress passed it, but some Americans simply refused to comply.
"I'm fooled enough," a Charles Gale was quoted saying in the New York World, "without fooling myself on purpose."
The move had been sold as a war expediency, and as soon as it was over, Congress sprang to end it. As usual, Southerners led the way backward.
"God's time is true. Man-made time is false," said Rep. E.S. Candler of Mississippi. "Truth is always mighty and should prevail. God alone can create daylight."
"I am opposed to Congress undertaking to usurp not only the powers of the Executive and the States, but those of God almighty and seeking to fix the time when the sun shall rise and set," said Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi.
In July, 1919, Congress repealed Daylight Savings Time, twice, and President Wilson vetoed the bill, twice. But Congress overrode his veto.
But as so happens when the federal government drops the ball, localities stepped in.
"The Big Apple had taken a shine to Daylight Saving," writes Michael Downing, in his engaging book on America's struggle with the clock, Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Savings Time, from which much of this account was cribbed. "If this hadn't happened, residents of North America would have been permanently spared the annual stem-winding ritual and its attendant controversies."
Among the advantages of Daylight Savings, it gave the 9 a.m. open of the New York Stock Exchange an hour jump on London, allowing traders to take advantage of the London markets before they closed at 3 p.m. London time. In 1920 New York City went back on Daylight Savings, and--pushed by stock and mercantile traders--Boston followed suit, pressing the Massachusetts legislature to draw in the whole state. As did Philadelphia and Cleveland, though Cleveland's law moved the clocks in the exchange and nowhere else.
The split—with urban centers, plugged into the global grid, embracing daylight savings, while farmers, worried the cows would become confused, shunning it. Indiana, the Mississippi of the Midwest, was famously a crazy quilt of varying time zones. It was not until 2006 that, after much debate, the entire state decided to tamper with time as God intended it.